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The Lost Gardens of Heligan: an amazing discovery

A visit to Cornwall's Lost Gardens of Heligan proves to be a veritable selection box of horticultural treats, but also a profoundly moving tribute to the gardeners who lived and worked there, over a century ago.
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The Lost Gardens of Heligan: an amazing discovery
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The Lost Gardens of Heligan: an amazing discovery

Hot summer days and a long weekend recently drew me to Cornwall, where I decided to investigate the Lost Gardens of Heligan; it has long been on my list of ‘must-see’s but I'd not yet found the opportunity to visit.

I certainly picked my moment. Most people know how Heligan became ‘lost’ after the gardeners who were so crucial to the running of the estate went off to fight for King and country in the Great War of 1914-18. At least 13 of the outdoor staff served in the war; tragically, nine of them gave their lives. Their loss shattered this tight-knit community; Heligan House was rented out and the wider estate was abandoned, falling into disrepair. It was only in the 1990s that this horticultural time capsule was brought back to life by a team headed by archaeologist Tim Smit, who also co-founded The Eden Project

This year, of course, sees the centenary of the culmination of ‘The War to End All Wars’, and it’s a time to remember those who made that ultimate sacrifice. During July there are performances of ‘100: UnEarth’, and as I explored the estate, preparations for the event were clearly under way. Swags of bunting here, a battered kit bag there… there was a haunting feeling that the intervening century was melting away.

Around the estate I noticed a moving air of melancholy, even on a hot and sunny summer’s day. It hung softly over the gardens, like smoke from a century-old Woodbine, long since extinguished. It’s especially perceptible in and around the kitchen garden, where the presence can still be felt of the gardeners who went off to war - and who never returned. As you stroll leisurely around the colourful gardens in today’s visitor attraction, you feel very aware that you’re walking in the footsteps of the gardeners whose heavy responsibility it was to make these fertile, sunny gardens productive, feeding the whole of the Heligan estate.

Artfully-trained fruit cordons and espaliers nurture the luscious bounty of late summer; apples, pears, plums, peaches are all small but perfectly formed, and growing well. More exotic fruits are also thriving in the gardens’ sheltered micro-climate; melons, grapes, peaches, lemons and, miraculously, pineapples are all basking in the hot sun. Pity the poor garden apprentice who had to turn the rotting horse manure of the pineapple pit to prevent it combusting! But imagine also the kudos of conjuring one of these fabulous tropical fruits from muck… and perhaps even the delight of tasting a morsel, at the time a privilege reserved for perhaps only a few hundred people in the country.

 

The flower garden in early July is a delight; crammed with an abundance of roses, poppies, sweet Williams, cosmos, rudbeckia, cornflowers, lavender… what a perfect time to visit, the colours and scents are incredible. And all perfectly contained within impeccably-trimmed box hedging, neatly dividing this floral extravaganza into tidy ‘rooms’. What an absolute joy, I didn’t ever want to leave.

But there is so much more to explore, so I pressed on. Beyond lies the Sundial Garden, full of colour, buzzing bees and benches in shady corners; the Italian Garden, where to the gentle sounds of a trickling fountain, bright lilies turn their faces to the sun, and waterlilies elegantly unfurl; shady Sikkim, where the monster rhododendrons of a National Collection (read more about the National Collections here) grew unchecked for decades, allowing them to recreate their natural wild habitat; and of course the Jungle, a steep secluded valley of unimaginable lushness, where monster gunnera grow to enormous sizes, and tree ferns recreate prehistoric forests.

Around the estate, the faces of the lost gardeners gaze down at today’s visitors, their families having very kindly donated photographs. It’s very touching to feel this connection to the men who worked this land, and who gave their lives to defend it. You can’t help but feel they would be proud to see the estate they loved back to its former glory; productive, beautiful and prolific. Their names grace herb labels in the Melon Yard, the white markers reminiscent of the war graves which lie scattered across northern Europe. If, as they say, we die twice, once when our body dies and the second time when our name is remembered for the last time, these men truly live on still.

The Heligan estate covers over 200 acres, and the guide recommends a couple of days to see everything. I can quite understand why; I was there for most of a day, and it flew by. It simply is a must-see for anyone with an interest in gardens, plants, or social history, and I will be back, as soon as I can.

Heligan is living history, a moving tribute which throws the spotlight not on life in The Big House, but instead on the working people who were so important in day-to-day running of the estate; on the lives – and the tragic passing - of the men who loved these gardens.

 

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